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Hands On - Warlock: Master Of The Arcane

Come on, Fido. War keys!

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When I was a much younger person, I rarely stopped playing Enemy Unknown and Jagged Alliance. If I did put them to one side, it was usually because I was playing Master of Magic instead. There were other games, of course, but in terms of the amount of time devoted to them, those three were probably the dominant forces for at least a few years. UFO and Jagged Alliance are both receiving new versions this year and, lo and behold, Warlock: Master of the Arcane is the best attempt to emulate Master of Magic’s best features as anything I’ve played in the sixteen years since I bought it. It’s more than a clone though, with plenty to say for itself.

Master of Magic came with one of the heftiest manuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of holding. Learning to play the game wasn’t overly complex and much of the space on those hallowed pages was devoted to describing, in great numerical detail, the bewildering amount of stuff in the game. I can’t think of a fantasy strategy game before or since that has contained so many playable races, summonable monsters, spells, unit types and buildings. Balance be damned, it cried, hurling armies of gnolls at void-walking weirdnesses while wizards enchanted, buffed, blasted and eradicated troops, monsters and landmasses.

It was glorious, containing every creature from every myth and fantasy novel I’d ever read, then having them duke it out across a randomly generated map, with dungeons, ruins, neutral villages, magical nodes and dimensional warps scattered across it. Epic clashes took place but there were also heroes to send questing on their own, gaining levels and becoming demi-gods by leading armies into siege warfare and looting the dark places in search of magical items. It was even possible to create artifacts, bestowing them upon favoured generals and transforming them into all-conquering, near-invincible tools of destruction. Master of Magic was about many things and one of those things was the creation of legends.

To Warlock then and its own take on fantastic strategy. Sometimes it’s best to start with the most obvious thing and in this case, I reckon that’s to say that Civilisation V and Master of Magic have stumbled, Brundle-like, into a machine that has combined them into a hybrid. The machine is a development studio, of course, and thankfully the hybrid isn’t falling to bits and storing its genitals in jars. I don’t think it even has genitals. Indeed, it seems that the parts selected for this new whole are the best bits of the two games it seems most inspired by.

Like Civilisation V, Warlock has beautiful hex-based maps, a distinct lack of unit stacking and a fairly approachable user interface. Yes, it’s a Paradox strategy game with an approachable user interface. Of course, I’m a hardened hex machine with many a grand historical campaign behind me, familiar with taking attrition, supply lines and derring-do into consideration before ordering a single soldier to raise his musket, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise simplicity when I see it. Warlock does not have a complex interface and its most intricate parts will probably only be revealed after a great deal of play with the finished product.

What I expect is to have an enormous amount of stuff to play with. A similar treasure trove of creatures and conjurations as Master of Magic provided. I’m hoping that the real meat of the game won’t be in the intricacy of its finely tuned statistical tracking or immense calculations, but in the sheer joy of ridiculous amounts of stuff. The preview code I have doesn’t disappoint. I was immediately confronted by rat men, armed in various ways and with pleasing textual descriptions of their background. Ever wondered why a certain troop type is armed with a cutlass and dressed in rags? Warlock wants to tell you why. It’s a world full of colour and detail, all provided in word-nuggets. Exactly the kind of word-nuggets, in fact, that would have been in a hefty great manual once upon a time.

Technology is magic in Ardania (the world of Warlock and the Majesty games), with research discovering new spells along a path of the player’s choosing. Different types of wizard have access to different branches of magic and it’s possible to dabble in several, allowing access to lower tiers in various disciplines, or to specialise and concentrate on mentally clambering toward the spell-flinging equivalent of thermonuclear warfare.

Then there is religion, which I don’t fully understand but am intrigued by and have a vague affinity with. In the game, as well as being dedicated to magic, the leaders of each magiclan can have a devotion to a god, which leads to various bonuses balanced by requirements. As far as I can make out, the system is a little like the relationship between the mighty @ symbol and his/her god in many roguelikes, with assistance coming at a price, particularly if prior behaviour has not been suitable. It’s not something I’ve spent a great deal of time experimenting with and the early build of the game has quite a bit of missing information, which has hindered my attempts to describe it at times.

What I have spent time doing is building little armies and fighting. Exploring the world is enjoyable because it looks good and there is usually something interesting waiting behind the curtains of war (I’m bored of fog). It’s the same sort of bits and bobs I’ve already talked about – monster dens, villages and towns to conquer, assorted violent creatures wandering the countryside. Combat is very different to Master of Magic and that change stems from the lack of unit stacking.

Instead of moving to a tactical grid when entering a fight, all fisticuffs, swordicuffs and clawicuffs take place on the strategic map, Civ-style. Ranged units can actually fire across a hex to hit a distant enemy, which somewhat reduces the sense of scale but could be beneficial design-wise. It’s too early to tell as I’ve not been faced by large hordes of enemies yet and therefore haven’t been required to do anything cleverer than outnumber the few.

That also means I haven’t had a chance to see how good the enemy intelligence is, for both neutrals and opponents. It’s actually one of the glaring weaknesses in Master of Magic, where enemy wizards will repeatedly send a single unit of spearman up against heavily fortified citadels instead of waiting to combine them into an army. Hopefully that’s one element that hasn’t been borrowed.

In recent years, Paradox have produced some of my favourite games and with Cartel on the way as well, they are seeming less like the grand strategy men I remember them as and more like a conduit for the past to gain new life in a higher resolution. Maybe I’ll start referring to them as Bullprose or Microfrog. Much as that is an expression of my love, every time I write about one of their games I’m aware that within an hour someone will have commented about ‘paying to be a playtester’.

Warlock, which Paradox are publishing, is being developed by Ino-Co Plus and it isn’t ready for release yet. It’s in beta and, as might be expected in a beta, there are missing and incomplete features, and unpredictable crashes. I’ve also been playing the Crusader Kings 2 beta, which is being developed in-house, and have had a much smoother and more complete experience there. In fact, Crusader Kings 2 has improved significantly since the beta began, preparing for its Valentine’s Day release. Ino-Co Plus need time to ensure every feature is complete and every detail is in place, and with Warlock currently lacking a firm release date hopefully that’s precisely what they will get.

Warlock has the potential to be incredibly special and has a huge audience-in-waiting but these last few months will be crucial. I’ll be scrutinising everything from here on in.

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Adam Smith

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